Cold Specks at The Sugar Club, Dublin on October 17th 2012
I arrived at Other Voices in Dingle last year, two days late. With tickets like gold dust, I’d been happy enough to secure two nights of intimate musical brilliance, but it turned out that the sea-salt ice cream parlors and dolphin tour boat chatter had already decided on an act of the weekend: very nearly everyone was raving about Cold Specks. Al Spx, a London-based Canadian who’s pseudonyms (both Cold Specks and Al Spx are false monikers) exist in part to hide her early fame from a disapproving family, has chosen an apt alter-ego: she is indeed cold to the point of miserably dingy, exploring dark emotional depths in a style that’s hauntingly beautiful but also quite a difficult listen. With obvious soulful gospel roots shining through the darkness and an unusual take on live adaption, Al’s project has been branded in some quarters as ‘doom soul’.
There are aspects of tonight that feel less like a performance than a depressing yet fantastically evocative exploration of feelings. When Cold Specks opens, wearing a knee-length black coat that gives the same barely in from the cold sense as her music, she does so alone, leaving her backing band backstage and occasionally drifting from her microphone to allow her unamplified vocal to filter around the room. It’s a sign of just how “shiver down the spine” her vocal can be that even the often chattersome bar area is pin-drop silent.
When the band does join, the backing track – which includes Chris Cundy on quite brilliantly mellow bass clarinet – is almost for atmosphere alone, with Spx’s sublime vocal utterly dominating proceedings. Most of the material is straight from debut ‘I Predict A Graceful Expulsion’, with the title track itself reaching huge vocal highs in its pitchy chorus, while ‘Blank Maps‘ and ‘Lay Me Down‘ (not a Frames cover) also come across as particularly dark, twisting and moving.
There’s a gothic tinge to the way Spx performs, like a choir girl dancing with the devil, still evoking incredible beauty but dominated by an air of huge and enveloping darkness. It’s far from easy listening; in truth there are times when we find her hard to watch, but equally, she is quite incredibly moving and capable of releasing an audience from her clutches with their heads spinning and thoughts scattered and heady. Even the moment of playfulness, the addition of Will Smith‘s ‘The Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air’ is distinctly styled, and places its comic value more in what it is than the single-verse, slowed-down rendition Spx actually delivers.
There’s no denying that this is something special, then, but while it’s easy to appreciate, it’s difficult to enjoy. Cold Specks just aren’t the kind of band to flit away from their manic-depressive stylings live, and they’re beautiful, but they’re also an extremely difficult and sometimes lurchingly dark listen. Perhaps that’s the point: we can’t argue with the artistic expression here, and it’s wonderfully to finally see Spx fantastic vocal output live. We just can’t quite see the light seeping through the gaps, making this as tough to watch as it is moving.